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The Black Irish

The Black Irish      Gerry O'Shea

 The million or so men, women and children who sailed for America during and after the Irish famines in the 19th century had imbibed a clear message from the ruling class about their inferiority; they  lacked any sense of confidence in their culture or, indeed, much belief in their own individual worth. Widespread starvation conveyed the clear message of failure and shame and left a deep imprint on the national psyche.

 In addition, their masters told them that - far from being victims - they were somehow responsible for the mass hunger that they experienced. The Irish people had to accept that they somehow brought it on themselves, or perhaps that God, the personal God that they prayed to every day, had abandoned them because of their sins.

The new Irish exiles in America saw themselves as unhappy emigrants from the country they had roots in and loved and not as immigrants in a country that promised real opportunities for bettering themselves.

The distinguished historian and Unionist parliamentarian, William Lecky, wrote in 1860 that even the most worthless Protestant believed himself to be part of a dominant race and superior to the most affluent and distinguished Catholic.  The  Protestant leaders in their new country shared this perspective, viewing the tens of thousands of decrepit and sad faces, the emaciated famine Irish, as an unwelcome nuisance and indeed as a threat to the status quo.

The  Irish were seen as joining blacks at the very bottom of the pecking order, sharing with them work in the most menial jobs and living often in overcrowded slums.

They resented being treated in the denigrating and dehumanizing  way that blacks were - even after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Understandably, they wanted to be "white" with all the privileges that came with that designation.

Anti-Irish Catholic prejudice was prevalent in the late 19th century in the activities of the powerful Ku Klux Klan and Know-Nothing groups, who looked at the new arrivals from Ireland with the same hateful disdain as they viewed black people.

The movement of  Irish immigrants and their descendants away from identification with blacks to "whiteness" and full acceptance in America was very gradual. In 1928 Al Smith, a devout Catholic of part-Irish heritage,  won the Democratic nomination for President, but the WASP-dominated media and anti-Rome culture in many states ensured his resounding defeat.

 Even in 1960, a century after the huge famine migrations, leading Protestant spokesmen, like Norman Peale and Billy Graham, publicly questioned the independence  and readiness for the highest office of John Kennedy, an Irish Catholic.

The famine or great hunger has left its imprint on the Irish psyche; the awful suffering and deaths from starvation made an indelible mark. The famous Swiss psychoanalyst,  Carl Jung, developed a cogent theory about the importance of dealing with dark memories, the hidden collective unconscious, the painful shadows, which must be part of understanding  the modern Irish mind frame and disposition.

Shakespeare wrote that "the evil that men do lives after them." Watching children die because there was no food for them sears the collective imagination, and such heart-wrenching trauma unconsciously impacts the behavior of people even a hundred years later.

The Irish proclivity for alcohol is sometimes explained as an escape from horrible, subconscious tribal memories of pain, hunger and dejection. And the statistics show that Irish people respond much more generously than other ethnic groups to stories of hard times, especially where childhood hunger is involved. Does an unconscious tribal memory of unspeakable happenings in the past play a part in such a generous response?

 Is it just a coincidence that many of the white political leaders, past and present, in the forefront of Civil Rights agitation have Irish family backgrounds?

The Irish are certainly "white" now, but we shouldn't forget the many years when we were told repeatedly that we belonged with the inferior blacks, sharing with them the mark of inferiority.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at








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